The EU and its Member States have responded to the coronavirus by relaxing the conditions for the free movement of labour across Europe. This not only jeopardises the health of the workers affected, argues Ognian Kassabovbut contains the risk of increased exploitation and inequality beyond the duration of the crisis.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is putting to a harsh test not only the peoples and governments of Europe, but also the very structure and functioning of the European Union. And as a number of analysts have already noted, the EU is not performing particularly well, to say the least.

Talks among EU Member States regarding measures to help countries combat the crisis have re-opened an ugly dimension to the north-south divide, as Germany and the Netherlands have staunchly refused to back the issuing of common EU bonds to help finance the most severely suffering countries, at this point Italy and Spain. As reported in this very blog, the past week has seen no significant steps towards resolving the stalemate.

For the time being, the European Central Bank has launched a new package of quantitative easing, with Member States currently headed on their part towards extending loans from the so-called European Stability Mechanism. Apart from being accessible to eurozone members only, the mechanism means that countries will be dealing with the financial side of the pandemic to a large degree on their own. In contrast, with common eurobonds, countries faring better would have effectively extended help to the worse off.

The course taken constitutes a blatant failure of European solidarity. It goes without saying that this deals a severe blow to the EU’s legitimacy. But it could also threaten what remains of the Union’s cohesion, with some Member States having to deal with the severe and lasting economic fallout of the crisis, while others, wealthy and lucky enough, go through more or less unscathed.

“Essential services” defined

Nevertheless, a full-blown return to the nation-state, as prophesied by some, is not too probable for the time being. Even though it initially went as far as to dismiss the proposal for common eurobonds, the European Commission has also taken steps in another direction to strengthen the workings of Union in the coronavirus crisis.

End of March, the EU executive issued practical guidance to ensure the free movement of critical workers, in which it advises member-states to lift restrictions to the free movement of workers required for ‘essential services’. This relates to services involved directly in combating the epidemic and the maintenance of economic activities that cannot be interrupted. As stated in the document, the list of ‘workers exercising critical occupations’ includes not only medical professionals and transport personnel, but also care workers as well as seasonal agriculture workers.

The Commission guidelines could not be timelier for certain industries. Days earlier UK producers had warned their government that spring crops are going to rot without the import of no less than 90,000 workers from East Europe and elsewhere. A parallel situation surfaced regarding care workers in Austria, with the first charter planes flown in from Bulgaria and Romania the same day.

The EC document states that ‘some sectors of the economy rely heavily in several member-states on seasonal workers from other member-states’, presenting the measures as a response ‘to labour shortages in these sectors as a result of the crisis’.

Labour shortages amid soaring unemployment

At the same time, reports of sky-rocketing unemployment are streaming in, with more than one million people estimated to have lost their jobs in Britain and close to 200,000 in Austria since the start of the epidemic. In Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, which has until lately been boasting a very low unemployment rate, some 250,000 are reported to have become unemployed, with short-term contracts on the rise.

But Germany has jumped on the bandwagon too, by relaxing borders for agricultural workers, saying it would need 80,000 of them – again from East Europe. Farmer associations have raised the estimate to 300,000.

Given that a significant portion of the ‘critical occupations’ identified by the Commission are part of what is usually termed ‘low-skilled labour’, claims about shortages raise eyebrows. A much more plausible explanation for the relaxation of travel restrictions would point to the now habitual needs of companies in wealthier West European countries to be supplied with cheap hands from the East, even in the face of soaring unemployment at home.

Granted this, the promptness of the Commission’s move is alarming, as is the response of national governments. By opening their borders to seasonal workers given weak evidence of the real necessity to do so, authorities are suggesting that even during a time of pandemic, profit trumps health and solidarity.

The inequalities of free movement

The implementation of the guidelines has been remarkably swift, as thousands of temporary workers have started heading West. But already this past Thursday, Romanian newspaper Adevărul reported on shocking scenes at Cluj Airport, where some 2,000 seasonal workers gathered, with no physical distancing, waiting to board chartered flights to Germany.

The Commission document underscore that employers need to provide for ‘adequate health and safety protection’. But the incident in Cluj vividly illustrates reasons to doubt the capacity – and willingness – of both authorities and employers to enforce measures needed to guarantee safe work and transit for workers.

A strange attempt at reassurance by Deutsche Welle, the German public international broadcaster, also brings into relief the dangers involved. When the federal agriculture minister gleefully explains that incoming guest workers would spend their first 14 days with restricted movement, working under quarantine, things start getting dizzily surreal. For their part, workers travelling to Austria are not so lucky: they have to spend 14 days confined in the destination country without being able to work, and then do the same thing upon returning back home.

Unemployment is on the rise in the East, too. More than 60,000 have become unemployed in a small country like Bulgaria, and the number is growing. Add to that some 200,000 guest workers returned from elsewhere in Europe. With scant re-employment opportunities at home, it is clear why some people would venture the risk of crowded trips and temporary work – and why the local government would be eager to let them do so. To boot, money sent back home from those working abroad makes a significant contribution to Bulgaria’s economy.

Deepening inequalities

Podkrepa, one of the two major trade union confederations in Bulgaria, has issued a statement protesting against the new EU policy, as reported by German TV channel ARD and Swiss paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. For their part, a leading association of Bulgarian agriculture producers has called for restrictions on the export of seasonal workers, and for the unemployed to be directed to the local farming sector – without a word about making their conditions more attractive than jobs in Germany or Britain.

Bulgaria is not only the EU’s poorest member, but also its most unequal, with the top/bottom quintile share ratio soaring at 8.2, according to the latest Eurostat data. Romania comes third at 7. The two countries lead the ranking for risk of poverty and social exclusion, with the rate sitting at well over one in every three people.

Instead of enhancing job offers to attract workers available locally, employers in the East are this far choosing to maintain existing levels of inequality. Of course, this is to the benefit of their counterparts in Western Member States – and to the detriment of the local unemployed there.

In the absence of palpable EU-level policies to reduce inequalities, the freedom of movement in the Union has been criticised as fostering social dumping. During a time of pandemic, using this mechanism to extract value from labour and keep wages low is all the more cynical. Add to that the even deeper inequalities bound to arise from the current failure to take joint action, and the vicious feedback effect gets amplified.

In a sense, the European Union has already started reverting ‘back to normal’. And what we are likely to witness if the trend continues is not so much the end of the EU, as the EU’s shrinking down to its own neoliberal skeleton.

Beyond the pandemic: Workplace deterioration?

Already precarious, the labour of seasonal workers can become all the more hazardous at a time of grave health concerns. The story of European seasonal workers might turn out to be illustrative of a post-crisis scenario of broader precarisation.

Many have argued that by disrupting the global economy, the pandemic is going to force actors to reconsider their policies and forge greater social and international solidarity. But as the relaxation of EU restrictions suggests, today’s capitalist economy is in the possession of resources to take advantage of the crisis, rather that shift to a direction more favourable for workers.

Protracted negotiations between the Italian government and national business association Confindustria have shown that even when willing, authorities have a hard time restricting economic activities in the interest of public health. One of the big worries in the current situation is not so much the confinement of those lucky enough to be able to go work remotely, but the safety of those forced to ‘move freely’ to their factory – or to another country – just because they cannot afford to do otherwise.

Soaring unemployment provides only weak motivation for employers to guarantee a safe workplace and a living wage. Coupled with the rise in flexible, temporary and zero-hour work that is bound to be accelerated by the pandemic, the current situation bodes ill for the capacity of workers to forge strong organisations for defending their interests.

Instead of overthrowing the status-quo, the COVID-19 pandemic could enforce negative trends set in motion long before the outbreak of the virus.

This makes all the more urgent to broadly organise, especially in sectors with volatile employment but key significance during the crisis, to forge international ties, and to oppose inept government policies. In particular, trade unions in countries such as Germany and the UK should step up both cooperation with counterparts in other parts of Europe and their engagement with foreign workers.

by Ognian Kassabov

Originally published on 14 April 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Ognian Kassabov teaches philosophy at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He is member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung’s long-standing partner in Bulgaria.